§ 3.7 p.m.
§ Lord Norton of Louth
rose to call attention to the case for raising public awareness of the work of Parliament; and to move for Papers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, the institution of Parliament is fundamental to our political system. It is the vital link between citizen and government. People speak to government through Parliament. It is the authoritative public body for calling government to account. A healthy Parliament is central to the well being of the political system and central to the health of Parliament is public awareness of, and support for, the work that it does. A Parliament that is starved of public support is an isolated and, ultimately, vulnerable institution. In short, Parliament and the public need one another and each ideally needs to recognise the importance of the other. That recognition, I suggest, is lacking. There is declining public interest in what Parliament does and a failure on the part of Parliament to develop links with citizens.
Let me identify what I believe to be the causes of this poor relationship. They are several and are not confined to Parliament. I suggest that the problems are 828 structural, attitudinal, behavioural, and societal. By structures, I refer to parliamentary structures. The two Houses are not structured, or rather are not as well structured as they could be, to facilitate public awareness of what goes on within Parliament. Much of the present debate about parliamentary reform focuses on the relationship between Parliament and the executive. That is of fundamental importance and I very much welcome the debate that is taking place. However, what tends to be neglected is the relationship between citizen and Parliament and, indeed, between Parliament and citizen. Although there is greater transparency in parliamentary proceedings than previously was the case, both Houses tend to stick with structures, as well as procedures and practices, that are not geared to encouraging public interest in, and access to, the work of Parliament.
By attitudes, I refer especially to the attitudes taken towards Parliament by government and the media. If government and the media take the attitude that Parliament is somehow peripheral, a body not to be taken seriously, then it is not surprising that citizens generally are not inclined to take much interest in Parliament. A dismissive attitude toward Parliament is not new but it is becoming more pronounced.
Successive Speakers have had to remind Ministers in another place that statements of new policy should be made first to Parliament and not to a press conference. Media interest is limited. The press galleries for most of the time resemble the "Marie Celeste". What coverage there is has shown a qualitative change. The sketch-writer has taken over from the parliamentary reporter. Television coverage has diminished since the cameras were first admitted. Coverage of the committee work of Parliament in particular attracts far less attention than it did a decade ago.
However, parliamentarians cannot be absolved from responsibility. Some Members do not always take Parliament seriously as a body for effectively scrutinising government. There is an inherent tension in the position of most MPs, being elected to support the party in government yet being Members of a body that is expected to subject to critical scrutiny that very same government. If the balance tips too far in favour of the government, then it is hardly surprising if the public take little interest in Parliament.
There is, in addition, a tendency on the part of some Members to be somewhat wary of the media. We criticise the media for not giving Parliament the attention that we believe it deserves, yet we tend to ignore how we might ensure that what we do is more attractive and more accessible to the media. We are too prone to make a virtue of economy at the expense of effectiveness.
Both Houses devote relatively few resources to public relations, to ensuring that what we do is promoted to the media and other bodies outside the House. Your Lordships' House has taken the lead in appointing an information officer. She does an excellent job. The other place has now followed suit. However, the resources we commit to public relations are minuscule compared to other parliaments. Indeed, 829 the Scottish Parliament has more than three times the number of staff that this House has with responsibility for public relations.
By behaviour, I refer to the conduct of politicians. There is a problem at a collective as well as an individual level. The clash of beliefs represented by the political parties is healthy, indeed fundamental to our political system, but if the clash degenerates into mindless point scoring then it repels electors. Partisanship in the other House is a product of excessive party loyalty: MPs recognise that it does the reputation of the House no good but are unable to stop their party instincts from driving their behaviour.
At the individual level, if Ministers and parliamentarians behave in a way that falls below the standards expected of them by citizens, then their behaviour undermines popular support for and, consequently, interest in Parliament. Although we now have codes of conduct, a Parliamentary Commissioner in another place, and the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the public perception of the conduct of politicians remains a negative one. The perception is that politicians cannot be trusted to tell the truth and that they are out to further their own ends. That was made all too clear in the first report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and it continues to be borne out by survey data.
Finally, and most important of all, there are changes in society itself. We have seen some significant shifts in the stance taken by citizens towards political institutions. In recent decades, according to some commentators, there had been a decline in the civic culture. Samuel Beer, the distinguished American political scientist, has argued that deference in Britain has given way to a new populism. Party leaders seek to tap that populism, to some extent directly. What has been termed "designer populism" has been a feature of the growth of presidentialism in British politics—the Prime Minister becoming detached from his own government as well as from party and Parliament and intervening in public policy as the champion of the people to address a particular problem. That development, as is implicit in what I have said, has been at the expense of parties and Parliament.
Not only has there been a more populist approach, but there has also been a change in participation. There has been a decline in support for political parties. People have found outlets for their political views through pressure groups—in some cases through direct action groups. Others have simply turned away from politics. Other attractions now absorb their energies.
A consequence of these developments is that there is limited and decreasing public interest in Parliament. People do not see Parliament as particularly relevant to their lives. It appears peripheral. That is reinforced by constitutional change, with powers passing to other bodies—the European Union, the courts and now elected assemblies in different parts of the United Kingdom. If there is an interest in political activity, then it is directed elsewhere.
830 We thus face a dilemma. Parliament is crucial to the health of the political system. It needs the support and interest of the people if it is to be a strong institution in fulfilling the tasks expected of it. That support and interest, on the whole, are not there. Parliament by itself cannot restore faith in political activity. We need to go wider than Parliament in order to achieve that. But it can go some way towards addressing the problem. It needs to adopt a more robust stance towards government, and especially towards the conduct of Ministers. It also, and crucially, needs to increase public awareness of what it is doing. That is a prerequisite for bolstering public support, although support will not necessarily flow from greater awareness. Parliament has to prove itself.
I turn to what needs to be done. We need to take a new approach to the media and, indeed, to citizens. The relationship between Parliament and citizen is, as I have argued, two way. We need to provide greater access for citizens to Parliament. We need to ensure that Parliament reaches out more to citizens. Furthermore, what people see, and what we tell people we are doing, has to be relevant.
What can we do to increase greater access? Interest groups send us a lot of material and constituents write to their MPs on an ever-increasing scale. But none of that gives us a clear view of what people think. We need to provide more structured means of ensuring that citizens have some input and are heard. One possibility is to make greater use of the Internet for on-line consultation. The Hansard Society—and I declare an interest as a member of the society's council—has already undertaken some on-line discussions for committees, including the Science and Technology Select Committee of this House. There are some problems associated with using the Internet for consultation, as the Commons Public Administration Select Committee has noted, but such techniques can help complement other means of contact.
Another important change would be to create, in another place, a petitions committee. Many citizens devote a great deal of time and effort to persuading people to sign petitions. Some petitions have many thousands of signatures. But the petitions go into a parliamentary black hole. Petitions committees, able to receive petitions, investigate them or pass them on to other committees, are features of many west European legislatures. The Scottish Parliament has one. The House of Commons used to have one. There is a powerful case for creating a new one.
The proposal for a petitions committee was advanced by the Conservative Party's Commission to Strengthen Parliament, which I had the honour to chair. Another proposal of the Commission was that your Lordships' House should regularly refer Bills to Select Committees before the usual Committee stage of a Bill. That would permit bodies outside Parliament to have some input into the legislative process and to do so in a highly transparent manner. A similar argument applies to the use of special standing committees in the other place.
831 I take these as examples of the kind of thing that we should be doing. What, then, of reaching out to citizens? I welcome the fact that the Parliament website has been re-designed and will soon come on-line, albeit far too late. I welcome the experiment with webcasting of parliamentary committees. But we must go further. As the modernisation committee in another place noted in its recent report,committee reports now look like documents from a previous era".We need professionally designed documents. But that is just the beginning. We need a fundamental change of attitude towards the media and towards the dissemination of reports and information about what we do. We need more staff to promote our work to the media and to the wider public. Despite recent additions, we are grossly under-resourced. We need to push out material to anyone we think is interested in it. We should be disseminating reports, even Hansard, to groups, societies and any organisation with an interest in public policy. We need to bring the media in. Rather than politicians trooping over to 4 Millbank, we should be bringing 4 Millbank into the Palace of Westminster. We need to provide more space and facilities for the media. We need to make the Palace media-friendly. That involves a change of attitude and more resources. It also involves ensuring that what we do is relevant.
If citizens are to take an interest in what we do, we have to ensure not only that they see what we are doing but that what we do resonates with their interests and concerns. Here there is a problem, especially with the other place. Your Lordships' House does a good job in carrying out its functions. We could do better and we must ensure that what we do is better known and that there is greater input from people outside.
With the House of Commons, there is a more fundamental problem. Often, the issues that concern people outside are those that are discussed on free votes. Such occasions are rare and are generally squeezed out by the predictable debate that takes place between the parties. As a consequence, the House of Commons does not appear dreadfully relevant to the citizens who elected it. There needs to be reform of practices and procedures but also new thinking about the issues that Parliament discusses. The Commons Liaison Committee has recommended short debates on Select Committee reports, which I very much welcome. But what about short debates on grievances raised by petitions? That would be one way of re-connecting with the people.
I offer those as illustrations of what we should be thinking about and doing. The list is far from exhaustive. I hope that your Lordships will add to it during this debate. But I hope that I have shown the need for much more innovative thought about how Parliament connects with citizens. Some of my proposals may appear radical. My purpose in focusing on the wider context is to show that, relative to the problems we face, far from being radical, these are 832 extremely modest proposals—modest, my Lords, and essential to the health of our parliamentary democracy. I beg to move for Papers.
§ 3.22 p.m.
§ Lord Sheldon
My Lords, we are indeed grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for initiating this important debate. He made the case for Parliament. In all my years in the other place and in my brief time in this House, I never thought that I should ever have to rise to make the case for Parliament. That was almost inbred in us—part of our background and part of our history. We should not need to make that case. The sadness is that we need to do just that. That is a shameful situation.
Parliament must prove itself and, more importantly, Members of Parliament must prove themselves and assert themselves rather more. In the past few years, they have not done that and have been considered almost as part of the executive machinery, supporting the executive rather than questioning them and bringing them properly to account by asking them real questions. They should have been saying, "I am here to represent the people who sent me here, not to represent only my party. My party is important, but even more important than my party are my principles and this country". That should be the motivating force behind them all. Unfortunately, we have not seen that.
Let us get one thing out of the way at the outset: the standards of the conduct of Members of Parliament. I was the chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee of the House of Commons. Of course there were one or two unpleasant cases, but they were a very small minority. If we consider the country as a whole. I would say that my colleagues on both sides of the House of Commons and on all sides of this House are honourable and decent men—men and women of much higher standards of probity and conduct than one would find in the population at large. So that is not the cause of the problems that we face. Naturally, it is a matter that we must deal with, but it has nothing to do with the decline of Parliament. Let us get that quite clear at the outset.
In fact, during the past few years we have seen the rapid decline in the reporting of Parliament. Part of that was due to the large government majority; part to a much greater consensus on a number of matters which made for fewer policy differences between the parties. Speeches in the House of Commons used to reflect strongly independent, personal views that made for comment in the newspapers and the media generally. However, speeches seemed no longer to have that force. Members of Parliament would say in private what they did not say on the Floor of the House. In the past, more of them were prepared to speak their mind even where they disagreed with their own party. So it was left to the parliamentary commentators in the press to interpret what they saw as the mood of Parliament, rather than the speeches in Parliament, which should have shown the greater division in reality as Members of Parliament saw it.
833 That allowed the sketch writers to whom the noble Lord, Lord Norton, referred greater opportunity to provide their own amusement amid their interpretation. Because it did not fully represent the views of dissenters on the Government Benches, and because the Opposition were reduced and demoralised, Parliament became more of a ritual of tit-for-tat as antagonistic views were thrown across the House of Commons. The House of Lords was much better in that respect, but as the House of Commons is the primary Chamber for commentators, the standing of Parliament was represented by what took place there.
Dissent by their own Back-Benchers is always inconvenient to government. We all know that. But such inconvenience did not prevent previous generations of Back-Benchers expressing their views openly and frequently—with courtesy, of course—as was the obligation of each Member of Parliament. In that respect, the role of the government Back-Bencher is crucial. It is that person who, speaking to others, can apply the pressure to alter policy. With such a large majority as we now have, that pressure is much reduced. Francis Pym, now the noble Lord, Lord Pym, had it quite right when in 1983 he pointed out the need for a modest majority. In such circumstances, Parliament can operate nearer to what the standard works on our constitution predict. It is in this situation that government can be held to account by their Back-Benchers when their voices and, occasionally, their votes cannot be overlooked. For that correct and honourable assessment, the noble Lord, Lord Pym, was sacked. That was sad.
Perhaps I may set out my personal position. As a member of the government party, like most other members, I have always believed that where I had no decided view opposing that of the Government, my responsibility was to support them. In the 1960s, I was chairman of a Back-Bench economic and finance committee, as was my noble friend Lord Barnett. I disagreed with the Government on two matters that the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, put at the top of his political agenda. Those were the devaluation of the pound sterling, of which I was in favour, and the need as I saw it to withdraw our troops from East of Suez. The first subject, devaluation, was unmentionable; the second was also opposed by Harold Wilson who, in one memorable speech, said that our frontier was on the Himalayas.
My views, unorthodox at the time, aroused considerable interest. I set them out in Parliament. Parliament should not be an optional medium for setting out one's views; for a Member of Parliament, it should be the main one. So it was with Churchill, so it was with Lloyd George, so it was with Gladstone—so it was with all those great people of the past. We are only pale shadows of them, but in at least one respect, we should be able to do what they did and speak what we feel in this place. That is what we are here for.
Of course one supports government—frequently after argument, discussion and dissent—but one comes to one's own conclusions and one should express them here. That is what this place is about. 834 Unfortunately, the other place has not been about that for some time. That is a great shame. People write their columns in the press, they give interviews of one kind or another, but if they have a view and want to express it, this is the place to do so. This is the heart of democracy. Unless we understand that and act on it, we are not doing anything about it.
An effective opposition sitting across the House of Commons Chamber is essential to the proper functioning of Parliament. Dissent on the government Benches—not opposition—is inconvenient but is essential for Parliament. Such are the aspects of Parliament that make it the centre of political ideas and action. The situation today may be much easier. The Opposition may be settling down now, after a long time, for the long haul. Many Labour Members who feared that they might be one-term MPs are beginning to use their position to assert themselves. Parliament as a whole may now be well on the road to re-asserting itself. If that proves to be the case, the press and the media generally may become more interested in the day-to-day work of Parliament.
A further cause for the lack of interest in Parliament is the increasing power of special advisers and the growing disillusionment with their role. As my noble friend Lord Hattersley reminded the House on Monday, the special advisers whom he used to know were different. They owed much of their legitimacy to the Fulton committee on the Civil Service. That committee, on which I served, agreed that there was a role for special advisers who were expert in their field but had political allegiances. That enabled them to fit in with the Civil Service and with the views and aspirations of the Minister whom they served. Such were Nikki Kaldor and Tommy Balogh. Another was Jack Straw, whose salary I happen to have confirmed while I was a Minister in the Civil Service Department.
Such people caused no problems. They were not grit in the machine; they were an asset to the Civil Service and to the Government. They were experts without executive power and acted as an expert link between the Minister and the higher Civil Service. They were valued in Whitehall, and there would have been no difficulty getting them to appear before Select Committees. Advisers now are rather more than the name suggests and are not even permitted to be questioned by the relevant Select Committees about their role and operations. If they are there, what are they doing? If we have to ask what they are doing, who should be asking that question? The relevant Select Committee should ask it, but Select Committees are not allowed to see them. They are not allowed to call them before them. Such people are taking on a role beyond that of special adviser; they are almost political appointees, in some senses.
The Select Committees need to examine the role and operation of such advisers. Some of them, without question, are very good, but why should they not be questioned? Why should we not know what they do, day by day, whom they see and how they handle themselves? The consequence of all that is increasing cynicism and lack of concern about the work of Parliament. I see that there is expected to be a new 835 Civil Service Act in the next Session of Parliament. I hope that that will be confirmed by my noble and learned friend the Minister. It would be a valuable contribution, and the House could add quite a bit to it.
There is one important change that must be made. The Committee Office of the House has done much to promote public understanding of the activities of committees. In the other place, when I was chairman of the Liaison Committee, minutes of evidence were available fairly promptly. I argued for them to be made available overnight on the Internet. That made it possible for such information to form part of the following day's political news, so people could see what was going on, even if they were not present. If there was a matter of concern or interest to someone, they would be able to find out something about it.
The Liaison Committee went further and argued for uncorrected evidence to be made available overnight, with the proviso that it be clearly labelled on each page that it was uncorrected. Corrected evidence could, of course, be published later. The delay in publication allowed witnesses to correct any mistakes that they may have made in giving evidence. The evidence was available to journalists present, but was only partial. We argued that it should be complete. It was eventually agreed that the new arrangements should apply to Ministers, with further discussions to be held on extending the arrangements. As far as I know, the argument continues.
The position in your Lordships' House is that even corrected evidence is not available. For example, there have been no minutes on the Internet of the Economic Affairs Committee since last July. I have kindly been given draft minutes because of my interest, but such information should be freely available. I had some difficulty in achieving the widespread dissemination of minutes of evidence in the other place. I hope that I will not have long to wait for it here.
§ 3.35 p.m.
§ Lord Holme of Cheltenham
My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for introducing the debate and for the powerful speech that he made. It will repay much careful study. It was densely packed with insight and suggestions. He was right to pay tribute to the parliamentary information services. They do a good job on a small budget. I imagine that it is common ground among your Lordships that a great deal more must be done. It is to that that I shall address myself.
As chairman of the Hansard Society—to which the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, referred—I speak with particular conviction that more must be done. Over the years the Hansard Society has done much to try to bridge the growing gap about which we have heard between Parliament and the public. We are now poised to take a step up in our activity, in partnership with the Citizenship Foundation—I am glad to see my noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury, the president of the Citizenship Foundation, in his place—and the Electoral Commission. Our activity is designed to 836 increase understanding of and respect for Parliament, especially among young people. Most of what I have to say will, indeed, be about young people.
Sadly, it is not the case that young people in this country respect and understand Parliament. Yet it is imperative for our democratic health that those people—the next generation—grow up with a good grasp of what Parliament does, how it does it and why it does it. In that respect, one need only compare this country with countries such as the Federal Republic of Germany or the United States. There, whatever the defects of the political system, no child grows up without a healthy and well developed respect for the constitution and the Bundestag or the United States Congress. Such respect does not exist today among our young people. In fact, the reverse is true. We see the negative and reverse image of that respect and understanding—ignorance and alienation.
MORI research carried out recently for the Hansard Society showed that there was a perception among 18 year-olds that Parliament is incomprehensible and irrelevant. As we know, turnout among first-time voters hit an all-time low at the last election. There is a massive job to be done. The citizenship curriculum, which I welcome—I think that it is one of the Government's most constructive educational innovations—gives us an opportunity to do that job. However, I would like an assurance from the Minister, when he responds to the debate, that, in a citizenship curriculum crowded with all sorts of worthy issues, the key issue of understanding Parliament will be a fundamental building block.
The aim of the Hansard Society-led consortium to which I have just referred is to give every student, during his or her school career, a taste of Parliament. We want to work with schools to take Parliament to students and bring them to Parliament. We want to do that virtually, creating a virtual Parliament on the web, and physically. We must connect better with young people.
Of course, when we say that they are ignorant of Parliament, we do not mean that they are not interested in issues. They are intensely interested in issues, but they do not see the connection between this House, the other place and our procedures, and the issues that interest them. Many issues interest young people, among which are public policy issues and the environment, including conservation issues. Student grants have been a controversial subject in Parliament. Young people are interested in issues such as—if I dare to say it from these Benches—the decriminalisation of cannabis. All those matters have particular salience for young people today, but they do not see Parliament as the place in which they are dealt with; nor do they know how they are dealt with. They do not see the connection between their interest in issues and the way in which they are dealt with in the public sphere.
As I listen to young people being conducted around this place by our admirable staff and others, I have to say that very often the lens through which they are invited to see Parliament is a historical one. They are invited to view this great institution as though it were 837 a historic monument or house, with wonderful history attached. That is important but it is as nothing compared to our working institution which is designed to protect, guard and advance the interests of the public.
We need a feasibility study on whether there should be a large visitor centre to increase the carrying capacity of this House which, at present, is scarce. Your Lordships cannot abuse the carrying capacity of this House if we are to do our job, but such a centre would give people a chance to understand what they were about to see before they came into the Houses of Parliament. We need to examine that proposal very carefully.
I should like to move on to the issue of the media—always a popular dog to kick in your Lordships' House—and in particular to the role of television. We shall shortly discuss the communications Bill—although it seems to be indefinitely postponed—and in that Bill the issue of public service broadcasting will loom large. Only in Britain would we spend hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money through the licence fee to secure the vital good of the public interest and not be prepared to define exactly what that interest is and how it is to be safeguarded by the broadcasters. If public service does not include communicating the role, activities and value of our national democratic institutions, what else can it possibly include? That must be fundamental to any definition of public service broadcasting.
Today, the coverage of Parliament is wholly inadequate, not only by the BBC but by other terrestrial broadcasters who have public service obligations. I know that many of the talented and well-motivated people who work in news and current affairs would agree with my criticism. The problem is that parliamentary coverage is confused with political coverage. We all understand very well how they relate to each other, but it sometimes seems that some of the pier-end entertainment managers who appear to have taken over the direction of British television think that there is no difference between parliamentary coverage and political coverage.
They can just about get their minds around adversarial politics because that is good knockabout stuff. They quite enjoy elections because they treat them almost as a sporting event, though not as entertaining as the Cheltenham Gold Cup. When they think about Parliament, they can barely stifle their yawns. The idea that Parliament could be interesting or important is a peripheral issue within political coverage, which is seen to be primarily about adversarial fun and games.
As a result of the communications Bill, I hope that we shall see a firm commitment, as part of the public service remit, that the activities of Parliament be properly covered by television and radio. I should like the Minister to draw to his colleagues' attention at the DCMS that this is a fundamental matter of public interest which must be protected and not be treated, as it so often is by broadcasters, as an ego-driven whinge 838 from party politicians wanting their speeches covered. I should be grateful if he can pass on the public interest argument to his colleagues.
Finally, having criticised others, we must, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, says, be open to the possibility, that the fault lies not just in the stars, but in ourselves. Does Parliament work sensible hours in a workmanlike way? Is it accessible and accountable?—values much rated in contemporary society. Are its procedures arcane and archaic or straightforward and understandable? Does it have joined-up legislation between both Houses? There is a massive challenge for Parliament to make itself effective and the Government accountable. The Hansard Commission, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Newton, made some very sensible recommendations, some of which were taken up in the report of the modernisation committee last month.
There is a tide for parliamentary reform which comes probably once in a generation, but it is running very strongly. There are now 237 members—Peers and MPs—of the All-Party Group for Parliamentary Reform. The Leader of the House in another place, is open to and, we hope, committed to reform. Will he be remembered like Richard Crossman and Norman St John-Stevas as a parliamentary reformer? There is a mood in Parliament to address this issue, not only in your Lordships' House but at the other end of the corridor. The noble Lord was right to refer to the merits of web consultation. We should use the web to consult with experts and the general public on a regular basis, not just occasionally.
I conclude by asking the noble Lord to add his considerable weight to that of his colleague, the Leader of another place, in trying to move the agenda on from what often seems too much manipulation and populism in Parliament to one of modernisation and participation. That is something for which the Government would be remembered with gratitude for generations.
§ Lord Moynihan
My Lords, I welcome this opportunity to discuss the case for raising public awareness of the work of Parliament, particularly at a time when we are facing a complex and rapidly changing environment and when the degree to which it functions effectively, its relationship with government and its success in representing the public, are being increasingly questioned. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Norton on his success in this ballot and the choice of subject.
The work and role of Parliament and the associated issues of parliamentary reform merit far greater discussion. It is a vitally important subject and one to which we do not devote enough time—to the detriment both of democracy and society. Good government and an effective Parliament are intrinsically linked. If we do not have an effective Parliament, not only do we not have good government, we do not have a healthy political system or a vigorous democracy.
839 In my remarks, I wish to range wider than the current work of Parliament and to look to its future shape and role in national life. I have spoken before of the disconnection between the people and their democratic institutions in this country. While civic life is prized in new societies, in established democracies a growing number of citizens are increasingly questioning the effectiveness of their public institutions. Most developed societies are experiencing a collapse of confidence in traditional methods and models of democratic governance. Our last general election certainly proved this, in contrast to Zimbabwe where people queued for 50 hours or more to vote in the presidential elections, because, deprived of true democracy, they know its worth.
Last year's general election here produced the lowest voter turnout since 1918. Millions of British people were prepared to forgo the opportunity to participate in the democratic process. Some 41 per cent of the population did not vote, and of those who did fewer than a quarter voted for the Government. That underlines the need for a strong Parliament, able to scrutinise legislation and contain the executive, of whichever political hue.
Since the general election, confidence in politicians and political institutions has continued to wane. Many of your Lordships will be all too aware that more people voted in the final of the television programme "Pop Idol" this year than voted for the Liberal Democrats in the last general election.
§ Lord Goodhart
My Lords, I understand that more people voted in that event than voted for the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives in the last election.
§ Lord Moynihan
My Lords, I cannot agree with that. My calculation was that 8.7 million people voted in "Pop Idol" and the collective number would have been greater. However, I may stand corrected once I have checked the arithmetic.
In those circumstances, there is little cause for optimism in the future. Levels of disengagement are likely only to increase, because—and here I totally agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Holme, about the importance of engaging young people—the problem is most acute with the young. Some 61 per cent of the 18 to 25 age group did not vote in the last election. I ask the Minister to pick up on the point that disconnection on that scale among young people poses a significant threat to the long-term health of our democratic institutions.
Voter participation is an essential part of a healthy democracy. While to some extent I understand the argument that we are living in what has been called a post-political age, in which the blurring of the old sharp ideological divides between Left and Right and the crowding of politics on the centre ground mean that people perceive little difference between the political parties and feel that voting one way or the other will make little difference to their lives, the 840 malaise goes deeper than that. As the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, said in her farewell address in another place:The level of cynicism about Parliament, and the accompanying alienation of many of the young from the democratic process, is troubling. It is an issue on which every Member of the House should wish to reflect. It is our responsibility, each and every one of us, to do what we can to develop and build public trust and confidence".—[Official Report, Commons, 26/7/01; col. 1114.]I do not believe that the public are more apathetic now than a generation ago, but I believe that there is a misalignment between national politics and local activism. There is no longer a perception that social, economic or environmental problems will necessarily have a political solution. As a result, our political institutions are no longer seen to be the key focus for change.
In many ways, activism is growing, but respect for the political process and the traditional institutions through which politics used to function is collapsing. Today, the targeting of the business world by NGOs and pressure groups is often seen as more likely to be an effective vehicle for change than elective politics. Yet if voters choose to sideline Parliament because they see politics as unfashionable and irrelevant to their lives, there will be grave consequences for society.
Democracy is only as good as its citizens. Good citizenship requires knowledge and participation. We know too much about the perils of dictatorship to indulge in the myth that democracy is simply a designer accessory. Democracy is by no means a perfect system. It has faults, flaws and deficiencies, but after 2,500 years it is still the best and fairest system of government known to man. The commitment to democratic accountability and legitimacy underpins the most successful governments and states in the world.
Representative democracy is critical if competing interests are to be reconciled not only peacefully, but in a coherent way. The collective will of the people must be manifested in our democratically elected Parliament, from which the Government are formed. If our elected representatives lose their authority because their mandate comes from ever fewer voters, the unelected and unaccountable activists will step into that vacuum, claiming that, on a given issue, it is they, not Parliament, who truly represent the people. Mob rule is not far from that scenario—witness the case of the anti-paedophile protests on the Paulsgrove estate in Portsmouth in 2000.
The way in which Parliament and politics are presented through the lens of the media is clearly influential in forming public attitudes. Ironically, the overall effect of increased media access to Parliament has been to make the political system seem more distant and less relevant to everyday life. The media have been criticised for dumbing down their coverage of politics. In part that is due to the dog-eat-dog fight for audience share, which means that entertainment is likely to win at the expense of information. That contributes hugely to the current soundbite culture of our political life. This language drives the public away, because they perceive a departure from the politics of conviction towards the politics of expediency.
841 Yet it is difficult to expect the media or the public to take Parliament seriously when the Government so often sideline it. The relationship between Parliament and the Government is one of the most fundamental in our democracy. The Government are elected through Parliament and deserve and derive their political authority from that fact. It should be a salutary lesson for governments that if Parliament is undermined, eventually so too will be the authority of the Government. To neglect Parliament is to neglect the body that confers the legitimacy necessary for a government to act and the body that ensures that the views of the public, whom it represents, are taken into account. Parliament is integral to public policy making, not separate from it or inferior to it. Yet we are increasingly drifting towards an executive approach to government, with executive announcements and action taking the place of decision-making through parliamentary debate.
In that context, Parliament must be able to regulate and police itself effectively. The resignation of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Elizabeth Filkin, her complaints of undue pressure and whispering campaigns and her criticism of the lack of independence and resources to be offered to her successor were highly damaging to the reputation of Parliament. It is vital that Parliament maintains high standards of probity and good conduct, for if it does not, how can it deserve its rightful place at the centre of our national life?
In closing, I place on record my thanks and admiration for the work done by the House of Lords administration, which has greatly improved public accessibility to your Lordships' House and plays a great role in facilitating understanding of its work as part of Parliament. The challenge that we face—this is a challenge for the Government, for political parties of all complexions and for Parliament—is how to deliver politics in an accessible way and to kindle political interest by ensuring that all people, young and old, are made aware of the relevance of politics to their lives. Voter disconnection from formal politics is not the inevitable outcome of a post-political, information age world. Without a 21st century Parliament for a 21st century Britain, efforts to re-engage the public will meet with only limited success.
§ 3.59 p.m.
§ Lord Phillips of Sudbury
My Lords, like others, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for introducing this debate. Judging by the numbers who have attended it, it has struck a chord with the House—and so it should. As my noble friend Lord Holme of Cheltenham said, I am president of the Citizenship Foundation, which I founded in 1988. As long ago as 1969, I persuaded a headmaster to allow me into his school for one lesson a week for a year, to see whether I could interest apathetic 15 year-olds in politics and the law. That was a lesson more for me than them and one that I have never forgotten. It was heart-lifting to discover that so-called apathetic, disenchanted and disconnected young people were hugely interested in the moral issues debated in this 842 Chamber from month to month. But they lacked confidence that anyone was interested in their opinions and the belief that their views were worth developing and expressing.
In the intervening 30 years, those problems have grown substantially. I refer particularly to the sense of powerlessness and civic insignificance of the vast majority of our fellow citizens. We—by which I mean this House and another place—do not understand just how disaffected people feel. I did my stint of canvassing at the last general election. Never before did I hear the constant refrains, "What is the point of voting? Nobody really cares or notices what we think. They only take any interest in us when an election comes around. Our MP is a decent enough person but utterly insignificant. MPs say one thing to your face and vote for something else in the House. They are powerless, so what does that make me?"
Sheep-like Back-Benchers are shoved through the Lobby night after night, often voting uneasily and sometimes directly against what they feel and believe.
There is a schism between the values that people hold dear in their own lives and the values that they see characterised by Westminster. In their own lives, people value integrity, independence and moral courage. There is a great deal of all that in the Palace of Westminster but the public do not see much of it. Among the most difficult of the thorny issues with which we have to contend is that on which the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, concentrated—the relationship between party discipline and the activities of Members—particularly of another place. Even in this House the situation in that regard is getting worse, not better.
Until we re-establish in the minds of the public a sense that their Members of Parliament are independent agents—albeit governed by party discipline and having to sign up to an election manifesto—with infinitely more freedom to be what the electorate want MPs to be, a great deal else will not succeed.
The predicament in which we find ourselves is even worse than many may think. It is not just that only 39 per cent of the electorate under 25 voted at the last general election, a point to which the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, referred. One third of those under-25s are not registered to vote. If one subtracts them from the 39 per cent, only one in four of under-25s voted at the last election. In the elections for the European Parliament, only one in 10 of under-25s voted. What does that say about politics?
Party membership is also rapidly declining, which raises a serious problem of the authenticity of government. No longer can governments make the claims that they could when more than 60 per cent of young people and more than 70 per cent to 80 per cent of the total electorate voted in general elections. It is no longer adequate for governments to say, "We have the authority of the ballot box". They do not.
Politics are not in a box but are intimately bound up with the whole of our social and communal strength or weakness. Of the under-30s in this country, more than 843 30 per cent have convictions for crimes of dishonesty or violence. In 1999–2000, the direct costs of crime—not the psychological damage—totalled more than £60 billion. The majority and rising element of that crime was committed by people under 30. Make no bones about it—we have on our hands a sick society. The violent aspect of antisocial behaviour is rising faster than any other. It is simplistic and futile to lay all the blame at the door of Parliament, but our country more than any on earth, except perhaps America, has an intimate connection between politics and its general health.
The Citizenship Foundation has active connections with more than half of all state primary and secondary schools. The gap between the relevance of this place to the so-called ordinary citizen and its actual relevance is enormous and growing, so I totally endorse everything that has been said about increasing the information output. The tiny band of people in our Information Office do wonderful work but there are fewer of them than in a medium-sized public company. We need to reach out.
One thing that we could do is have a speaking list, with each one of us offering to speak—not just to schools but to anyone who wants to hear about the work of Parliament. I do not imagine that any Member of this House would refuse to give half a dozen evenings a year for that purpose. Think what a transformation that would represent—3,000 or 4,000 occasions a year when we would be going out to the public. There could be no more effective sign of our interest.
I was infinitely depressed when, during our debate on the Nice treaty, I moved an amendment requiring the Government to circularise every household with an unbiased, plain English guide to the main issues vis-à-vis the governance of the kingdom. I was depressed by the lack of interest shown by government speakers, who seemed to think that everything was more or less all right because the White Paper that was published last year, price £10.40, was on a website; another pamphlet could be read in libraries; and Peter Hain had made a few public speeches.
We need to do infinitely more. We must get on our horses and go, like Wesley, into the highways and byways to sell our wares. Unless we do, the problems that we confront now will grow worse and worse.
We live in a disconnected, fast-moving world in any event. There is less informal communication than before and a decline in communality and local life. Volunteering and giving are not increasing. The latest statistics show that among the under-30s, there is a radical decline in the giving of both time and money. Even at the seminar at Church House yesterday, the BBC complained that it can no longer connect effectively with the young adult age group. We have a real problem in the form of communal, social and national disconnectedness. There is no easy answer to that. However, some of the suggestions made today will undoubtedly help.
844 In the final minute allotted to me I shall make a few specific suggestions. First, I suggest that we should have a post-legislative audit or impact assessment. That is because I believe that the volume of legislation is ludicrous and that the complexity of legislation is utterly self-defeating; and I would like to see a duty imposed on the Law Commission to keep track of those matters. We should have more limited-life legislation. We may need to consider carefully a common law approach to statute law, which broadly deals with principles and values rather than the minutiae of our traditional legislation.
We also need to consider the system of elections for Europe. The closed-list system was an affront to democracy. We need to contemplate open primaries because, even with open lists, there is still a gross excess of party membership influence on those lists.
We need to give advance warning of our debates and Bills—an active outreach that will allow us to contact every organisation relevant to our debates and Bills and let them know what subjects are to be debated and the results of those debates. I also believe that the Schools Unit—God bless it—needs 100 times more resources.
§ 4.12 p.m.
§ Lord Dean of Harptree
My Lords, I, too, am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth for introducing a subject of very great importance. I am also grateful to the House of Lords information officer. She has produced an excellent brief of the work that she and her team are doing to try to promote a greater awareness of the role of Parliament.
I suggest that any debate must start with the government of the day, no matter what their colour. Governments can help to promote greater awareness by treating Parliament with more respect. We need to reverse the growing tendency of Ministers to bypass Parliament and to make statements first to the media. That undermines the authority of Parliament and partly explains why people, particularly young people, do not bother to vote—a point impressively made by the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham. We need to remind ourselves repeatedly that Parliament is supreme. Parliament makes and very occasionally dismisses governments. A strong government needs a strong Parliament. It is in the interests of the government of the day to help restore the authority of Parliament and promote public awareness.
Today we hear much about the modernisation of Parliament. I have now had the privilege of sitting in one House or the other for over 30 years. I am always suspicious of modernisation, which usually means that the government of the day can more easily get their business. I am glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Norton, with his enormous experience in these matters, nodding in assent.
I give one example of what worries me. There is a suggestion that it may be possible to carry over Bills from one Session to the next. I believe that that would be extremely dangerous and unparliamentary. One of the main disciplines of government—any 845 government—is to persuade Parliament to accept a Bill by the end of a Session—otherwise, that Bill falls. Equally, of course, it is important for the Opposition of the day. There are occasions on which the only effective weapon available to the Opposition of the day is to talk. They can delay the passage of a Bill if they feel that it is not in the national interest that the Bill should pass. Provided it is done within the Rules of Order of the two Houses, that is perfectly legitimate.
I suggest that to allow the carry-over of Bills would tempt the Government of the day to overload the legislative programme, which they already do, and would deprive the Opposition of the day of a legitimate parliamentary weapon. We need fewer and better Bills, not more and worse Bills. I believe that the bad effect of carrying over Bills from one Session to another would blunt public awareness and respect for Parliament.
We have also heard about the possibility of a Civil Service Bill. Recent events have made it clear that we need to define more precisely the relationship between Ministers, civil servants and special advisers. For years there has existed in our system of government a key principle of trust between Ministers and civil servants who are devoted to the cause but are wholly non-party political and will loyally serve whichever government are in office. The waters are now muddied. I do not suggest that we should not have special advisers. We are now in that age, and I am very glad that the Committee on Standards in Public Life is now studying those problems.
There is a rumour—I am sure that the noble and learned Lord who is to respond to the debate will be able to comment on it—that Downing Street is trying to hold up the possibility of a Civil Service Bill. I do not expect the noble and learned Lord to tell us what will be contained in the next Queen's Speech. However, I hope that he will be able to scotch that rumour, thus allowing us to say that a Civil Service Bill will have high priority in the Government's programme.
I turn to executive agencies and quangos, which were mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, whose enormous experience in the other House we greatly respect. This is another area where there are disturbing developments. Oppositions are always rather cautious and suspicious of quangos. The minute they come into government, of course, they realise how handy they are and tend to increase the number of them.
In executive agencies and quangos, there is now a huge power of patronage, supported by vast sums. The effect that they have on individuals and businesses is very considerable. They are not effectively answerable to Parliament. I am not against executive agencies. Much is to be said for the Government laying down the broad policy and allowing the details to be dealt with by executive agencies. In recent years such agencies have grown enormously, but parliamentary scrutiny of them has not grown to anything like the same extent. That point was made very clearly in a distinguished report from the Hansard Society, The Challenge for Parliament, chaired by my noble friend Lord Newton of Braintree.
846 Equally, I am not against quangos. In a modern age, we possibly need quangos. However, they are often created without any reference to Parliament; for the most part, they are not required to report to Parliament; and they are outside the direct scrutiny of the Comptroller and Auditor General. Consequently, it is very difficult for Select Committees in either House to scrutinise their work effectively, even if they had the resources to do so.
I suggest that there is a growing gap in effective scrutiny of bodies that have a major role to play in Parliament. This partly explains the lack of public interest and awareness. People will, understandably, ask, "If Parliament cannot do this job, what is the point of us trying to take an interest?" I believe that to be one of the reasons for the decline in the prestige of both Houses of Parliament.
In conclusion, I shall mention very briefly four disturbing developments that seem to me to be important for Parliament. The first development is Ministers bypassing Parliament. I am not making a party-political point here because parties of both colours have done it. Secondly, there are the modernisation proposals that make it easier for the Government and more difficult for the Opposition. Thirdly, there is the confusion as regards relationships between Ministers, civil servants and advisers. Fourthly, while methods of government have moved on, Parliament has been overtaken, in its attempt to scrutinise these developments. This insidious combination is, I suggest, largely responsible for public apathy and lack of awareness. Only Westminster and Whitehall can put this right.
§ 4.21 p.m.
§ Lord Haskel
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, that there is a strong case why we in Parliament should see a big rise in the public awareness of our work. After all, we are here on behalf of the public. I congratulate the noble Lord on moving this Motion. As I see it, the problem is that the public may not really want to be aware of the work that we carry out in Parliament. Many people believe that our work here is far removed from their day-to-day lives. It seems to me that what they are really interested in is the politics that goes on in Parliament, rather than the work. They are interested in the differences of opinion; they are interested in the personal rivalries; and they are interested in the political ambitions. I am not being cynical. I am just trying to be realistic.
The noble Lord, Lord Holme, said that the work of Parliament and the politics of Parliament are inextricably linked. I agree. You cannot just raise awareness of our work without acknowledging the public's interest in our politics. It would be naive to think that we will be judged purely on the quality of our work. We shall also be judged on how we handle the politics. The openness, the honesty and the transparency with which we deal with the country's politics will also affect the interest that the public have in our work. The two are indeed linked.
847 What should we do about the situation? Let us look at it from the point of view of the public. Perhaps our parliamentary system is not as admired and appreciated by the public as much as we parliamentarians would like to suppose. What we see as useful and helpful procedures, perhaps the public see as fudge and secrecy. Let us take, for example, the decisions reached by the usual channels. This happens every day. We see it as a helpful way of reaching compromises, but it must be pretty mysterious to outsiders. To the outsider, this could be rather like the activities of a secret organisation. Anyway, the public now know that work is done better when it is openly discussed. That is why we should open up our procedures and let people see who takes decisions in Parliament.
The noble Lord, Lord Norton, says that our committee work is reported less; I am not sure why, but I believe that this openness is a special feature of our committee work, especially in your Lordships' House. That is why it is much admired. The committees consider things broadly from the public interest point of view. The European Union committees, the economics committee, the Science and Technology Committee and the ad hoc committees all try to make their work relevant to the public interest rather than to the political interest. Like the noble Lord, Lord Norton, I believe that our reporting ought to be a lot more user friendly and better presented, but I know that that work is in hand. I hope that we shall achieve that aim very shortly.
However, we have been slow and late in our attempts to inform the public about our work. An information office in your Lordships' House was established only five years ago—and, more recently, in the other place. The money and staff devoted to it are minuscule. I agree with the noble Lords, Lord Norton, and Lord Phillips. The resources devoted to the press and information office of a government department, a business, or, indeed, of other parliaments are much larger than those that we supply. I do not wish to detract from the work of Mary Morgan and her staff. They deal with 2,000 telephone calls a month when the House is sitting, and ensure that the press is informed about our current work and future business. I also happen to know that it was their initiative that the parliamentary website should be redesigned to make it easier to use and more attractive to the public. I hope that my noble and learned friend the Minister will join me and other noble Lords in congratulating that department on its work.
The noble Lord, Lord Norton, asked if our behaviour is one reason why the public are less interested in our work. My noble friend Lord Sheldon, with his vast experience, thinks that that may be exaggerated. I rather agree with the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan. The public should expect high standards of personal behaviour from parliamentarians. After all, parliamentarians are law makers. The public expect law makers to stick to the law, to set standards and to be honest. I agree that exaggerated reporting sometimes leads to unnecessary public anxiety. But if 848 you talk to reporters, they will say that they are responding only to what they feel to be public interest and concern.
Instead of responding to the narrow accusations and political rivalries about which my noble friend Lord Sheldon spoke, it seems to me that we could do far better using these opportunities to break out of the low ground that is currently permeating politics. By regaining the high ground, we could shift the agenda back to the political direction of the country and so create a better understanding of the work that we accomplish in Parliament. Yes, sometimes this kind of action injures its originator. We in the Labour Party are perhaps victims of its rules about disclosure of political donations, but that does not detract from its merits.
I agree with the noble Lords, Lord Moynihan and Lord Phillips, that the real worry about all this is falling participation at elections. There is a danger that the turn-out at the next general election could fall below 50 per cent. Are those who stay away saying that they want to vote for none of the candidates? Are they staying away because they just do not care? The noble Lord, Lord Norton, asks: is it that the public's influence on decisions is getting more and more distant as we join international organisations? Decisions that affect people's lives are becoming more distant. Yet, paradoxically, the world is coming closer together. We may not be sharing the same currency as others in Europe, but it is becoming apparent that we share many of the same values and ideals.
Perhaps to stimulate us we need a campaigning organisation like Greenpeace. In the same way that it stimulated concern about the environment, perhaps we need a similar campaigning organisation to stimulate us to face up to the concerns of the public and to tell us where it believes we have failed. The noble Lord, Lord Holme, is the president of the Hansard Society and the noble Lord, Lord Norton, is on the council. Perhaps they could persuade the society to turn itself into such a campaigning organisation. The Hansard Society seems to be saying to us that we parliamentarians indulge too much in politics and management and too little in governance—not government, governance.
The society calls for more governance by Parliament through scrutiny. The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, spoke about scrutiny, which would have to be more systematic and better-resourced, not only with more money and people but with more time devoted to it. As the Hansard Society suggests, perhaps Parliament should devote one day a week to scrutinising the work of government instead of simply debating it. I know that we parliamentarians prefer to debate the work and effectiveness of government, but that is largely political. Scrutiny by committees, whose Members have a career in Parliament devoted to scrutiny, would be better understood by the public as a means of scrutinising the work of government. The Public Accounts Committee and the Audit Commission are showing the way in that regard. Such scrutiny would be better understood by the public and would raise their awareness of our work.
849 I realise that governments like to be judged by results; after all, what could be clearer? As many noble Lords have said, we live in a democracy. A democracy must be concerned about how those results were achieved. So, how can we have a democracy without those systems being open to scrutiny? That effective scrutiny combined with proper information is the key to raising people's awareness of the work of Parliament. In short, if Parliament wants the public to take more interest, it must become more public-friendly in every respect.
§ 4.33 p.m.
§ Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market
My Lords, I too to congratulate my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth on initiating this important debate. I agree with his concerns. However, it is worth putting the matter in perspective: in 1949 Christopher Hollis, a Conservative MP of independent inclinations, published a book, Can Parliament Survive?. Three years later, George Keeton, a professor of law, brought out The Passing of Parliament. The issues are not new, but they have intensified in recent years.
I begin by disagreeing slightly with the remarks of my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. I shall set the record straight: the problem is not that Parliament does not address the issues of public concern. That point is usually made in connection with such matters as the environment, drugs and social issues, which are of great concern to young people. In fact, Parliament does debate those issues frequently. Contrary to the suggestion that health, education, transport and welfare issues are not debated in Parliament, any week's analysis of Hansard would show that Parliament is deeply concerned about those matters and that they are the stuff of parliamentary debate.
Every day in the other place there are pages of Written Questions on health, education, transport and welfare issues of direct local concern to constituents. That is not the problem; rather it is how the matters are conveyed and perceived. Nor is there insufficient contact with the electorate. All Members of Parliament now spend more time than ever contacting their electorate throughout the week and every weekend. They now use every means of doing so—not public meetings, because the public does not attend those, as their lifestyle offers them so many attractive alternatives. Not least because the parliamentary allowances have been increased greatly, various means are now used to communicate with the electorate, including professional public relations agents and all forms of technology. That means that one can make direct contact with doctors, nurses, pensioners and every interest group to survey their opinions. That happens all the time and on a larger scale than before, so it is not the real problem.
I am in favour of the work of the Information Office here. Until this debate, I was largely unaware of its work, which is perhaps a problem in itself. I am in favour of the work of the Citizenship Foundation, and I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, for his leadership of that body. When I was Secretary of State for Education, I was keen on the 850 foundation's work with schools, and since then I have participated in many of its activities. I know how good and important the foundation is. I therefore support all those measures. However, any such activity can he like pushing a small stone uphill against a rushing downward torrent.
We must analyse the underlying reasons why we are not projecting ourselves well to the public as was done in the past and why Parliament is apparently held in such low regard. First, as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, and others, outside influences have greatly weakened the supremacy and power of Parliament. Globalisation and the need for global and regional solutions, immediate information technology and instant global communication, and the shift of power to Brussels and Edinburgh have rendered other institutions of significant, but perhaps not equal, importance in relation to Parliament. Changing cultures and attitudes are important factors. We live in a non-deferential era—and it is different from 15 years ago—in which instant gratification can prevail. The ambition of many is to earn a good deal of money so that they can retire earlier, rather than to contribute to public life and service. The noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, made that point also. There is a problem with engaging young people in public life, partly because of their lifestyles, their busy working lives and the increase in two-income households where people wish to devote their free time to their family. Those changes have reduced participation not only in politics but also in church, social and voluntary activities, as noble Lords know.
People will not vote if they feel comfortable and do not think that their vote will affect their lives. That point is highlighted by the contrast between the events surrounding the British election and that in Zimbabwe, where a vote really matters. People will not lobby unless they feel threatened. The lobby today outside both Houses indicates how Parliament still matters, because people feel threatened about a matter on which it will take the ultimate decision. It is disturbing that pressure groups such as Greenpeace sometimes feel that is more important to lobby bodies other than Parliament and the Government to get their way. When the Committee on Standards in Public Life was examining lobbying issues, I was struck when a prominent member of Greenpeace who was asked about parliamentary lobbying replied that supermarkets and consumer targeting matter more than Parliament.
When discussing the influence and power of Parliament, we cannot avoid mentioning the role of the media—although it is a hackneyed issue. Robin Oakley, the distinguished BBC correspondent, wrote in a farewell article in The House Magazine:newspaper reports of what goes on in the Commons chamber are confined these days to the waspish efforts of a talented band of sketch-writers who largely see the Commons as a vehicle of entertainment, a backcloth to a string of witticisms".I fear that that is true. That is often the only communication from Parliament that many read in their daily newspaper. It is a sad reflection of how the media now feel that they must respond to what they 851 regard as public demand and the competition in the media to attract the public's attention. They regard it as more important to report what they think people want to hear and read about, which is so often the negative and the so-called sensational, rather than what we think they should report. All occupations are suffering from the combination of the non-deferential attitude and how they are reported in the media. That applies not only to politics, but also to the Church, the professions—it is beginning to apply to doctors—the business community and many others. Respect must now be earned, while it is often the transgressions of the minority that get all the media attention. I wish that we could change the media in that regard, because it greatly influences how Parliament and its work are perceived, but I fear that it would be extremely difficult to do so. An additional problem is soundbites and confrontation. Soundbites are no substitute for arguments, and two-minute interviews give no opportunity for analysis, as every politician who has been frequently engaged in them knows only too well.
I could talk much more about the media, but we are all aware of the difficulties that it creates for us. So I now turn to Parliament itself. First, composition is a factor in the other place. It is disappointing that such a heavy element of the modern Parliament is composed of people who have known nothing other than politics since their student days. The necessary width of experience is no longer being brought to Parliament. That is partly a function of salary, partly a function of sleaze—if I have the time, I shall comment on that—and partly a function of work pressures.
There is also the apparent irrelevance of Parliament. That too partly comes back to the media. Is Parliament any longer the forum of the nation or is it the media? If it is the media, the sadness is that the interviewers and producers have the power without the responsibility. They have the ability to ask questions but never to find the answers.
That is partly due to the bypassing of Parliament by government, not only by regarding the "Today" programme as more important than making a Statement to Parliament—I deeply regret that—but also because, with a large majority—this is more fundamental—government can be pretty brutal in saying that they can get anything through Parliament whenever they wish to do so, and that neither parliamentary debate nor proper parliamentary scrutiny of legislation matters. Regrettably, that too often seems to be the impression that is created today. Indeed, it is the impression that the Government often give by the way in which they currently bypass Parliament.
Something I feel strongly about is the parliamentary atmosphere of confrontation and—if I may put it this way—"yah boo" politics. It is out of tune with the spirit of the time. We all know that it is only a small part of what actually takes place in Parliament—at Prime Minister's Question Time and other Question Times—but it is the part that gets all the attention. I was much struck when judging the final of one of the 852 Citizenship Foundation's school debates when every single school participating thought that, in order to copy Parliament and show the proper parliamentary process, they spent all their time shouting, jumping up and intervening as happens at the worst moments of Prime Minister's Questions. They clearly thought that that was typical of what happens in Parliament. There is far too much of the confrontation element in the other place, with point-scoring rather than sustained argument. Happily, that is not present in your Lordships' House.
Much more attention needs to be paid to committee work and Select Committees. Governments need to take much more note of what they do. Select Committee chairmen should be paid, and I am glad to see that we are moving in that direction, and Select Committee work should be seen as an alternative career structure for a Member of Parliament. There is too much other workload pressure on MPs so that they cannot participate, or only a few do, in Select Committee work and in parliamentary scrutiny of legislation, and they do not do it effectively.
On the question of sleaze—I declare an interest in serving on the Committee on Standards in Public Life—what I regret most about the past five years is that, at a time when sleaze (if I may use that shorthand word due to shortness of time) is actually a small part of parliamentary life, and when most of the aspects being examined are trivial in the extreme, it receives so much public attention that it has the opposite effect to that intended. It gives the public the impression that sleaze is prevalent in Parliament when it is not.
Above all, we need to make sure that Parliament matters. I was saddened to note Peter Riddell, who I greatly respect as a columnist, writing in The House Magazine the other day, that, as a result of Stephen Byers's Statement to Parliament, when it appeared that his ministerial life was secured, Parliament still mattered. It is a rather trivial reason for thinking that Parliament still matters. But one of the problems that exists at the moment is that we have a government who have ignored Parliament too often because they have too large a majority. With smaller majorities, as I well recall in the last years of the Conservative government, Parliament really did matter. Members of the Government have to pay a great deal of attention to what Parliament thinks. When that happens, Parliament is clearly the focus of the nation and the media pay much more attention.
I conclude by saying that I wholly agree with the general analysis of my noble friend Lord Norton, and it is important that we all pay attention to putting this situation right.
§ 4.44 p.m.
§ Lord Campbell-Savours
My Lords, with the permission of the House I should like to say a few words in the gap, having listened to the debate.
Many of the comments we have heard this evening turned on people's concerns about a reduction in the reputation of this House and the other place. Indeed, the noble Lords, Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market 853 and Lord Dean of Harptree, referred specifically to the declining reputation. I should like, in the next few minutes, to point to something that we can do and which will influence judgments of people outside. I refer to the way we conduct ourselves in the Chamber.
Next week there is a debate on hunting. It is a controversial debate. I shall take a view and Members of this House will take differing views. Members of the press, stirred by Members of the other place, will pore through the Division List in the House of Lords to look for those Members of this place who have perhaps just signed in, just taken the Oath, not spoken this Session or perhaps not voted on any issue this Session, and who it is quite clear have turned up specifically to vote on the issue of hunting with self-interest in mind.
We can safely predict that some noble Lords will fall into that bracket. They discredit this place. Self-interest will have determined what they do. It will be exploited by the press. The will of the House of Commons may well be undermined because of Members taking such a position.
If there are to be reforms—there have been many which I support and which have been referred to today—let us start by running a House which does not operate on the basis of self-interest and where people cannot simply cannot walk in and vote, as they did in 1989 if I remember rightly on the community charge legislation. We used to laugh about it in the other place. We were told how the Division Lobbies were filled in this place with some who had not voted or seen the place for years, but who turned up because they had an interest in that legislation in so far as they were going to save a substantial amount of money.
That is what creates public cynicism. That is why people become angry at the Houses of Parliament when they see those things happening. I rest my case. Next week, when we look at the Division List, I am sure it will be upheld.
§ 4.47 p.m.
§ Lord Goodhart
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, is a distinguished expert on the constitution. He does great service for your Lordships' House. He is the chairman of our Select Committee on the Constitution and performed another service today by introducing this debate with a speech full of interesting and valuable ideas.
This Motion raises two questions. The first is whether the case for raising public awareness of the work of Parliament is made out. I am sure we all agree that it is. The second question is: if so, how do we do it?
It is clear that interest in politics at all levels has declined, not just an interest in Parliament. That decline is partly for reasons which are acceptable and perhaps even welcome. Politics is certainly less ideological than it used to be. The failure of socialism as an economic system means that there is now much less difference in substance between the main parties. Class consciousness, in my experience, is a good deal less than it was 40 or 50 years ago.
854 Those changes are certainly acceptable and I believe welcome. But there are also less welcome reasons why interest in the political system and in Parliament has decreased. For example, there is less interest in local government because so much of it has been centralised. Central government now tells local authorities what they are to do and how they are to do it. Indeed, we have two Bills before the House—the Education Bill and the Police Reform Bill—which increase the directive powers of central government. And nowadays local authorities raise only a small proportion of their own funds.
We have moved too far from what I suppose was the golden age of local government, which was probably the late 19th century; the age of powerful city corporations in our great industrial cities like Birmingham and Manchester, and the era of the foundation of the London County Council. Indeed, I remember one of the characters who used to inhabit the Peter Simple column in the Daily Telegraph with the ghost of Alderman Foodbottom, who had been the chairman of the Tramways and Fine Arts Committee of Bradford in the great days. I am afraid nowadays even the ghost of Alderman Foodbottom has given up the ghost.
We need to hand powers back to local authorities, including fund-raising powers. That would create more interest in local government. It would also mean that local elections would cease to be no more than glorified opinion polls on the popularity of the current central government. There has never been enough interest in the European Parliament even though it now has significant powers—but that issue is for another debate.
The decline in public interest extends to the whole of the political process, not only to Parliament itself. We cannot separate the lack of interest in the working of Parliament from the lack of interest in the process. Nothing is more irritating when campaigning than finding a voter on the doorstep saying, "You lot are all the same. You're all in it for what you can get out of it". I, as a campaigner, would much rather find someone saying, "Well, we are all staunch Tories in this house", or even, as once happened when I was campaigning on entry phones in Kensington, a voter who said, "You can stuff yourself up your own soft centre".
The people who say, "You are all in it for what you can get out of it", usually mean that they are too lazy themselves to take an interest or vote. But, in a sense, they are right—we are all in it for what we can get out of it. But what we get out of it is usually not money. Most of us, I am sure, are financially worse off for our involvement in politics. We are in it, in some cases, because we want office. That is not an ignoble reason for taking part in politics; it is certainly what inspired Winston Churchill for most of his career. We are in it for the excitement and interest of a political career; we are in it for the satisfaction of taking part in an essential function in a democratic society. We need to get those reasons across to the public.
855 The decline in interest in and respect for Parliament is blamed on the media. There is less coverage of Parliament than there used to be, but that is largely a symptom, not a cause, of the problem. We cannot force newspapers to print what the public do not want to read, although I agree very strongly with my noble friend Lord Holme of Cheltenham about the duty of public service broadcasters to keep the public informed about the work of Parliament.
I do not believe that satirists such as parliamentary sketch writers and Rory Bremner are doing damage because they appeal only to people who are already interested in politics. I do not entirely agree on this issue with the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market—not "Pulman Market" as his name appears on the List of Speakers.
We need to consider whether Parliament itself could do more to raise awareness. I am reluctant to suggest what the House of Commons could do because, unlike a number of previous speakers, I have never served there. But the sight of an empty Chamber for important debates and excessive party points scoring is not likely to increase the viewing figures for the parliamentary channel. Speeches on busy occasions are too often directed towards raising a cheer from party supporters rather than persuading a wider public—and I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, on that issue.
In your Lordships' House the Information Office does a very good job of telling people what we do. I have been impressed by the briefing papers it has produced for this debate.
Respect for your Lordships' House is high, perhaps particularly now that the Conservatives no longer have a permanent majority among Members who take a party whip and most of the hereditary Peers have left. But there is still a danger that we will be seen—I have to watch my language here to ensure that it is parliamentary—as a group of "boring old flatulences". "Old", I must confess, we are. At the age of 69 I have reached the average age of Members of the House.
We have to keep an eye on our public image. On one day a few weeks ago, the media coverage of your Lordships' House concentrated entirely on a Parliamentary Question about the House Christmas card—not because of any intrinsic public interest in the House Christmas card; clearly there was none whatever—but because it reinforced the misleading image of ourselves as "boring old flatulences". I do not believe that there will be a real interest in your Lordships' House until most of us are elected and the public feel that, in a sense, we belong to them.
The most important thing for improving awareness and interest in Parliament is education. I agree absolutely with my noble friends Lord Holme and Lord Phillips on this issue. We heard a passionate speech from my noble friend Lord Phillips, who has perhaps campaigned more than anyone else in your Lordships' House to ensure that the public, and particularly young people, get proper instruction in 856 how the political system works. No one, least of all those of us on these Benches, would accuse my noble friend of being a slavish follower of the party line.
I strongly welcome the developments in citizenship education. It is essential that all pupils, not only those studying politics, should get a basic instruction on the constitutional and political system of this country. We should seriously look at reducing the voting age from 18 to 16. That is now the policy of my party. It is a policy about which I have been in the past distinctly sceptical, but I find my mind changing on this issue.
When I was a parliamentary candidate—as I was on four occasions—I found that school sixth forms, as they were then called, were the most acute and interested audiences I had to face. But, of course, very few of those pupils were eligible to vote. If pupils became eligible to vote while they were learning about the political system instead of a year or two later, they would be much more likely to vote. Voting would then become a part of the rite of passage into adulthood and, having voted once, young people would be more likely to do so again.
I am delighted to see that the sum which the Electoral Commission is authorised to spend on encouraging public awareness of our political and democratic systems is being increased under a statutory instrument which has recently been laid before your Lordships' House, from £1.5 million per year to £7.5 million. That is certainly a welcome step forward.
There is no single cause of the decline of interest in politics—and in Parliament in particular—and there is therefore no single answer to that problem. The best answer, to borrow a phrase from a right honourable member of another place, is "Education, education, education".
§ 4.58 p.m.
§ Lord Saatchi
My Lords, on this occasion, as on several others when my noble friend Lord Norton has initiated debates in your Lordships' House on the constitution and related matters, we are most grateful to him for highlighting and so expertly analysing a major problem—that is, that the glorious idea of representation, which is perhaps the essence of our political system, has somehow been lost.
I always feel that debates such as this show your Lordships' House at its best. I remember that on one occasion the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said that the reports of the Select Committees of your Lordships' House should be made compulsory reading in schools, and the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, made similar remarks about our reports. Perhaps it is true that the best and simplest cure for the problems to which many noble Lords have referred is to open up your Lordships' House to visitors.
It is very striking that the public galleries are almost empty. Perhaps we should aim to fill them. For that reason I echo the remarks of my noble friends Lord Dean and Lord Moynihan, and those of the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, in praising Mary Morgan and the work of the House of Lords Information Office and 857 the new visitor centre. I hope that we follow up some of the suggestions of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, as to how we can help her with her work.
My noble friend Lord Norton dissected some of the key causes of the problem that is the subject of the debate and applied innovative thought to them. I hope that, when he comes to reply, the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House will give a positive response to the brilliant analysis given by the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, and my noble friend Lord Dean of the problems that exist in our own parliamentary procedure— particularly the "insidious combination" of the four procedural elements described by my noble friend.
Many noble Lords analysed the symptom of the problem as being low turnout, especially among young people. Some alarming and depressing statistics were given to us. The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, said that he was so concerned about low turnout among young people that he wondered whether the mandate was not being called into question, which is very serious indeed.
Other speakers concentrated on the diagnosis—on what the underlying causes might be. For adherents of post-materialism, I believe the root of the problem is widespread affluence leading to general contentment—the point was not taken up by previous speakers, but we read a great deal about it. Most speakers took the opposite point of view; namely, that the cause of the problem is widespread discontentment, disillusion and disrespect—the "deep cynicism" of which my noble friend Lord Moynihan and the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, spoke.
Many speakers were worried about the media. I refer in particular to the noble Lords, Lord Holme and Lord MacGregor. It will take a major act of will on the part of government to solve this problem. Simon Jenkins once explained to the Nolan committee why, as editor of The Times, he abandoned the full-page parliamentary report. He said that people,who want to read … what goes on in Parliament can subscribe to Hansard".That statement is the precursor of the thinking that now dominates broadcasting in our country, both in the commercial ITV companies and in the BBC. It is the thinking that leads to the concept of the "themed" channel, which now dominates broadcasting. Echoing what Mr Jenkins said, the ITV companies say: "If people want to watch news, we have a very nice 24-hour news channel". That is the new conventional wisdom in commercial television. The BBC says much same; namely, that it has conducted research among young people in "digital" homes—it takes this group to be the best predictor of the future shape of society—and that such persons are not interested in politics, and that, therefore, it is inappropriate to provide such programming, other than on a themed channel.
One issue that arises in regard to the BBC—I was grateful to have the opportunity earlier to mention this to the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House—is why the BBC parliamentary channel is, incredibly, available only on audio on the ITV digital 858 terrestrial channels which are free, and is available with a normal picture on Sky, which is paid for. In other words, the position we seem to have reached in regard to the BBC parliamentary channel is that a rich man gets a picture and a poor man gets a blank screen. This is hardly the New Jerusalem! I hope that the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House will use his influence to stop such complete nonsense.
Many noble Lords focused on the possible cure for the problem being "Education, education, education", a phrase employed by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. I am not sure that he was not closer to the mark in the earlier part of his speech, when he seemed to be getting at the important point that low turnout was not altogether a bad thing.
In reading around this subject before the debate, I found that it is a common view that the problem arises from a low opinion of the public—the suggestion being that they are either ill-informed or dim. The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, said that we live in a sick society. The implication is that, if only the public knew more, all would be well.
Instead, I ask your Lordships to consider for a moment that the reverse may be true; namely, that the public are very intelligent. Is it not a striking feature of our age that we live in a new enlightenment—it has been described as a "democracy of information."—in which the need to know has been replaced by the right to know. Is it not true that the public know everything? Like the natural philosophers that they are, they know the great changes that have taken place in modern politics. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, touched on that point.
The public see two historic forces at work, which may have led them rationally to conclude that their participation in politics is not as urgent and necessary as it once was. The first of these could have been revealed to them through their knowledge of the game of chess. Wilhelm Steinitz, the first official world chess champion on whose scientific principles chess is now based, said that it was always good, on principle, to take an opponent's centre pawn.
So it is that, today, the public see that both main parties, chess grandmasters, want their King near the centre of the chessboard. That is why, as the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, mentioned, all research now shows that the public say that "all politicians are much of a muchness these days".
Until recently, the position of the parties on the political chessboard has been very different. For example, the Conservative Party has spent the 20th century successfully depicting our Socialist opponents as totalitarian wolves in the clothing of constitutional sheep. Winston Churchill described the Socialist Party as:Evil, odious and repellent to every friend of freedom".The Conservative Party developed all the winning arguments of our time. We were proud of Conservtive economics and what it could do. We said that "a rising tide lifts all ships". We said that lower tax was good—for moral reasons, because it meant more freedom and choice for individuals; and for economic reasons 859 because, ironically, lower tax rates meant higher tax revenues and more wealth creation in the long run. As my noble friend Lady Thatcher brilliantly summed it up at the end of the 20th century,The facts of life do invariably turn out to be Tory".But then, of all things, after a victorious century-long battle against Socialism, the facts of life turned out to be Labour too. Under Prime Minister Blair's direction—and who can deny him credit for this?—Labour's Berlin Wall came down. He embraced free enterprise capitalism. He welcomed low tax. He respected work. He admired wealth creation. He said that "the polarities of Left and Right of the 20th century would prove an aberration". He would consign the old Left/Right divide to what Engels called "the museum of antiquities". When Mr Blair went on to offer his beguiling synthesis of capitalism and socialism, the great divide in British politics came to an abrupt end.
I am putting forward the notion that the British public are intelligent enough to see all this in exactly the way that I have just described it. So is it any wonder that the passion for politics has declined? That is the first great force at work which the public see.
Secondly, people are aware of what is perhaps the most monumental change in our lifetime; namely, globalisation—which has shaken up all our institutions and produced an entirely new form of capitalism, which the public can see is beyond the reach of the national governments for whom they are asked to vote with such urgency.
Perhaps I may expand on what my noble friend Lord Norton said about this subject. The public have been told, and have understood, that no man is an island, not even this one; and that it is not the case, as my noble friend Lord Dean hoped it would be, that Parliament is supreme. They have been reminded that, for example, the rule of law requires a compulsory jurisdiction. They have already accepted the degradation of their own sovereignty, because foreign judges already make decisions which they have to accept as a necessary result of the international rule of law. They have been shown how, with global financial markets, economies are interdependent; how environmental problems—the ozone layer, climate change, biodiversity, and so on—cannot he solved at the national level; how the World Trade Organisation cannot allow contravention of rules by one country in pursuit of its own sovereignty.
So, as usual, a shrewd public see it all. They see mega-mergers, global alliances and jobs moving to where it suits global corporations to employ people, and they conclude that fighting globalisation is like fighting Darwinism. So, if we are depressed to discover that the public believe that the globalisation of companies and economics means that the globalisation of countries cannot be far behind, and if we are concerned—as every speaker has been—to hear people express doubts about the relevance of our Westminster Parliament to their lives, perhaps it is because the public are excellent students of economics. 860 They can see the economic power of globalisation, and they know that politics follows economics. So, our politics here at Westminster may end up with the same weight as local elections enjoy. We know what has happened to turnouts in local elections.
I want to end on a positive note. It would be wrong to despair—as I think the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, did at one point—that things are getting worse and worse. I am not sure that that is true. It is certainly not happening because people are too dim, uninterested or apathetic. I hope that noble Lords will agree with that, for some of the reasons that I have outlined. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, said that the key point is that people like to see differences of opinion, and I agree. All they need to be "heart uplifted"—as the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, said—is to see and hear the clash of real ideas presented by political parties that have a clear and distinct sense of purpose, a certain idealism, and a marching tune to which they can respond. Those are the essential preconditions for the future health and happiness of our great democratic system.
§ 5.11 p.m.
§ The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn)
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, and all noble Lords who have spoken, for a debate that has gone a good deal wider than the parameters set down in its title. For my part, I think that that was a useful widening.
All the speeches seemed to demonstrate one point: we all have a common purpose in this House that unites our thinking even if we do not always come to identical conclusions—which is that all governments require effective scrutiny. Governments therefore require this House to run as effectively as possible, so that scrutiny can be diligent, continuous and informed. A number of noble Lords have spoken about what we do. What we do is important; how we do it is critical. It is interesting—indeed amusing—for someone who has never been a Member of the House of Commons to note that, on an occasion like this, the most swingeing criticism of the House of Commons has come from the recently and dearly departed who had formerly sat there. So all the sinners begin to repent when they enter a more civilised Chamber.
I thought—if I may say so without offence—that the analysis from the noble Lords, Lord Dean of Harptree and Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market, was extremely interesting. The criticisms of the noble Lord, Lord Dean, included—if I have them noted correctly in my mind— first, criticism of Ministers bypassing Parliament; secondly, concern about modernisation proposals; thirdly, the relationship between Ministers, civil servants and political advisers; and, finally, his feeling that, in some ways, Parliament has perhaps been overtaken in its true scrutiny role. He specifically mentioned the question of carry-over.
As your Lordships know, there is a Leader's group composed of a few of us who are working on trying to achieve a consensus on changing, and I hope improving, the way in which we work. The noble Lord, 861 Lord Waddington, has been in the Chamber for much of the debate, and the noble Lord, Lord Roper, has been here throughout. We are working together on that. What I hope we shall be able to show to your Lordships is the possibility of being more effective in the duties that we should carry out. Some of your Lordships have said on many occasions that what we really need is an improved method of legislating. That would imply no longer seeing 1,000 or 2,000 government amendments. I think that it is fair to say that, in the past nine months or so, that sad history has been expunged or at least significantly improved. I have no doubt that the real answer to that is to have proper pre-legislative scrutiny. Although that will make life harder for the Government, I can bear it with some fortitude.
We all have the common desire to get the best possible legislation. It seems to me that the House's current Committee scrutiny is not satisfactory and ought to be divided conceptually into two. The first aspect is the Bill's policy, on which there may he no agreement between the Government and the Opposition parties. Secondly, however—even if there is disagreement about policy and the concepts—we ought at least to deliver proper, effective and workmanlike legislative product. If we could achieve a situation in which most significant government Bills were subject to pre-legislative scrutiny, and the co-relative benefit was—as I know that the noble Lord, Lord Dean, suspects—a likely carry-over, it seen-is that we would then he able to work together to get good legislation even if we disagreed on the policy content.
There are the questions of public perception to which the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, referred. As he knows, I pay tribute to his work with the Citizenship Foundation—to which he introduced me long ago when I was at the Bar and was able to join in on his mock trial projects, which were extremely successful. I suggest to your Lordships that it is no longer tolerable that it should be assumed that attendance in Committee, on Report or at Second Reading is somehow an optional extra in which one may indulge or not as the case may be. The fact is that this is and ought to be a full-time House, even if it is currently staffed by part-timers. I should be grateful if your Lordships could assist me in explaining to the public why we do not work in the mornings and have two and a half months off in the summer, but at the same time say that we cannot introduce important—I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips—Law Commission Bills. I have never been able to explain that to the public.
I suggest that we shall have to have a sea-change in the way in which we work. We should not be sitting after 10 o'clock at night, and we should be doing our work of bringing the government to account much more effectively. One of the effective weapons in this Chamber is not the yahoo antics—as some of your Lordships have described them; I could not possibly agree with that—practised elsewhere, but the daily Question Time. That is one of the most effective occasions in this place, if your Lordships wish to make it effective. It will be for your Lordships to decide 862 whether, as I have suggested, we should expand that. At least to start off, on an experimental basis, we could have perhaps five Questions per day. I have offered this change, and I hope that your Lordships will wish at least to consider it as an experiment. Question, Time is a ready, continuing, daily weapon for Opposition parties to challenge Ministers, who have to be briefed and able to explain themselves.
There are many other devices by way of modernisation—or improvement, if modernisation is too jarring a word for our activities—and other proposals that we could consider. If we have the unity of purpose that we have demonstrated this afternoon, I have no doubt that, even if it is on an experimental basis, we shall be able to improve our practices. It is right that we are regarded as arcane by many of those whom I have almost described as voters—the gloomy feature is that they are not voters; some of them are not even registered. We have to bear in mind, of course, that turnout in the American presidential election was even worse. Fewer than 50 per cent of those who are registered—and registration there is not good, at about 48 per cent, if my memory is correct— vote in those elections.
Some of those who might be interested in politics plainly are not interested because of the extraordinary divorce between our experience, as we believe it to be, and their knowledge of their existence. When we spend day after day after day arguing about Section 28—still unresolved—and day after day on the age of consent, they simply come to their conclusion, with which I entirely sympathise, that we inhabit not a different world but a different planet and insult them by our lack of knowledge about how they live their lives and wish to construct their futures.
It was said by the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, that the media have a responsibility. That is true. However—I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, is not in the Chamber; as a collector of political cartoons he would have the knowledge to respond to this fully—if one thinks of Rowlandson, Gilray and Hogarth, to take but three examples, one might think that the media are not entirely devastating at the moment.
The noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, raised a particular aspect of the media which is important. I am grateful to him for his courtesy in warning me about the BBC. I believe that we are entitled to say that if the BBC, uniquely constituted and funded as it is, is to continue, those who fund it on a compulsory basis are entitled to say that part of the public service interest ethos must be to give a full and proper review of parliamentary procedure—not an uncritical one. It seems to me—I am speaking personally and heading for, I expect, immediate dismissal—that the purpose of the BBC is not only to be described as aiming for the highest possible ratings and possibly going hand-in-hand with the lowest common denominator.
The noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, asked questions about video on which I have had research conducted. It is right that the Government allocated digital terrestrial television capacity to the BBC. There is not 863 sufficient capacity on the BBC's multiplex for it to broadcast "BBC Parliament" on digital terrestrial television in full video, but I am able to reassure your Lordships that the BBC is actively exploring options to enable that service to be provided in full video, which is welcomed by DCMS. I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising the matter.
The rest of the media have been criticised partly because of parliamentary sketches. But parliamentary sketch writers can be amusing and critical—I see the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, shaking his head in disagreement—only if on occasions the performance offered justifies such descriptions. Sometimes the descriptions are over-harsh and sometimes they are over-obsessive, but if we have a good debate in your Lordships' House we generally receive good credit for it. Sadly, for our families, not all of our speeches are reported in full, even in the broadsheets, but if we have a good debate we normally receive a decent response.
§ Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market
My Lords, the quotation from Robin Oakley was not critical of the satirists—I am certainly not, as they raise parliamentary awareness. The point was that they concentrated so much on those aspects that insufficient attention was given to reporting more serious matters.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. Of course, the sketch writers are part of a wider spectrum which includes those aspects of the media referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi. Taken as a whole, we should be entitled to look to the broadcast media, which is probably the way that the majority of young voters receive information about politics. I do not believe that most of them scrabble for the parliamentary sketches, whatever paper they happen to read, because I am sorry to say that most young people do not read newspapers. Most of them take such information from the television or the video.
Mary Morgan and her colleagues carry out an extraordinarily good job of work and they are thinly resourced. The noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, said something that struck a chord in my mind. Other noble Lords hinted at it, sometimes more brutally in the case of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, who said that we are a sick society. I do not believe that we are. I believe that we remain a generous-hearted country which could do better. Fundamentally I believe it is a decent, good and tolerant society, civilised in its accommodation of other people's different views. The noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, pointed to the fact that we are now a less deferential society, which is undoubtedly true. The juries of my youth, which was not pre-flood, were always dressed in a collar and tie and a suit. Now people sit there in T-shirts.
The world has not become worse, but it has changed and our experience is different. Non-deference is quite good in a society that has been over-obsessed with secrecy and the proposition that those set in authority over us are necessarily always right on every conceivable occasion. My experience shows that not to be a universal truth.
864 Part of the remedy must lie in our own hands. We need a visitors' centre. Comparing the workings of our Chamber with other chambers in other parts of the world, I visited the Basque Parliament in Vitoria and the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. I went unannounced so they were not doing me a great favour. On entering the Scottish Parliament one is immediately made welcome and made to feel that they want to see you. The information is readily available; the facilities for the broadcast media and the print media are in place.
I believe that little is required for our two Chambers except a modest amount of thought. The necessary resource would be limited. If one considers other quite new chambers—our colleagues in Spain post the Franco regime and those in Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff—one sees that they have the advantage of not being encumbered with the wrappings of tradition.
§ Baroness Carnegy of Lour
My Lords, I suspect the Minister saw that the visitor centre in the Scottish Parliament is constantly full of children, particularly primary school children, who visit in school time. They are very interested in the interactive arrangements that they can enjoy.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I did notice that. It struck me that that is a useful device. That is a young Parliament, using imagination and a certain amount of resource, but it is not vastly extravagant. In Belfast children visit the Chamber, which faces difficult circumstances, to act out the roles of Speaker and so on. Those are small steps, but incrementally they are capable of bringing about good consequences.
How do we raise public awareness of the work of Parliament? I hear in mind one noble Lord's cautionary note, that if we do not do very well and people know more about us the conclusion will not be entirely gratifying. I believe that we should try to focus on scrutiny of the Government, general revision of legislation and debates of this kind. There are many parts of every notional parliamentary week when we are not using the time: in the mornings, except for committee work, often on Fridays and for a large period in the summer.
I hope that noble Lords will join with me in what I believe to be our common purpose and I shall seek their support when we try to improve ourselves. If we make improvements to the work that we should carry out, undoubtedly those improvements will resonate with the public; and the public, whom we try to serve, will benefit as will this House, which I believe we all respect and want to serve in the best possible way.
I repeat my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Norton. In 16 or 17 minutes I have not been able to deal with all the points that have been raised. I simply refer back to my original proposition. There is a common theme: we believe that this House is of substantial quality. I do not have the curse of the noble Lord, Lord Pym, in having any kind of majority, being 21 short of the main Opposition party. There may be a moral there, but if there is I shall not attempt to draw it.
§ 5.28 p.m.
§ Lord Norton of Louth
My Lords, I have great pleasure in thanking all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. It has been an extremely worth while debate. I take on board the points that have been made. There has been a common theme and a recognition of a common problem, which is the disconnection between people—especially young people— and Parliament. Affluent young people with access to the Internet are not interested in politics, but at the last election the lowest turnout was among those from the areas of greatest social deprivation. We face that very real problem. The problem of disconnection is not situ ply confined to Parliament; nor as my noble friend Lord Moynihan mentioned, is it necessarily confined to this country. Other countries face similar problems.
A major task to be undertaken is almost a recreation of civic society. I agree that a large part of the route is through education. I declare an interest, as I spend all my time in education. There is great progress to be made. My experience of talking to schools throughout the country is that one can gauge that people are interested in issues. I take the point raised by my noble friend Lord MacGregor that those issues are variously debated, but not in a way that resonates outside and not necessarily to the extent that I would like. Although it is true that more and more constituents go to see MPs, they are still in the minority. There is a great deal more to be done to connect with the people in this country to make them more aware of the work of Parliament.
A central point that has been made is that Parliament is part of the problem. It must also be seen as part of the solution. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.